Some say Swiss-born performance artist Milo Moiré is a provocateur without a point, a nudist more suitable for Instagram than the art world. Her critics have denounced her work as vacuous, devoid of meaning. As with much performance art, people ask if her work even qualifies as art. Is it pointless exhibitionism or is she trying to convey something meaningful?
Of course, we could ask that question about many performance artists, but in Milo Moiré’s case, it’s relevant. Another relevant question: how do her performances, and reactions to them, reflect the world in the second decade of the 21st century?Moiré uses her body as the canvas and provokes reactions through conceptual art she enacts—often nude and in public. She studied psychology and integrates psychological principles into her art, attempting to convey or articulate human psychology through her performances. But don’t expect dry or incomprehensible exhibitions: Moiré explores the weird, the unseen, and the perverse, often in the same performance.
“Since I was able to think, I have always been interested in unusual things,” she says on her website. “I liked to watch. I was an introverted child. In every school there are the so-called misfits. These were exactly the children that fascinated me. For me they were like a rainbow, the ascent from the earthly to the heavenly dimension.”
Is It Art?
Since Marcel Duchamp laid a urinal on its side and signed it with a fake name, the art world has taken several strange turns. Some pieces or performances invariably lead people to ask “Is it art?” Such a question isn’t easy to answer for a variety of reasons, one of which depends on your definition of art.
Artists and critics, philosophers of art and the public have debated art for decades and no consensus for a definition has emerged. What does a Toulouse Lautrec, a Rodin, an Abramovic performance, and a Miles Davis album have in common? Are they all art? Are any of them? What conditions must a person or piece meet in order to classify as art? Must a definition of art also define what constitutes bad art?
No one has produced satisfying answers. While each question is interesting in its own right, we’re going to sidestep all of them in our study of Moiré and instead focus on intentionality and execution. We’ll ask two questions: what does it mean? Does she succeed in conveying her intentions?
PlopEgg No. 1
In 2014, at Art Cologne, an annual art fair in Germany, Moiré created abstract paintings in a peculiar way. She stood outside, nude, and pushed eggs into her vagina. The eggs were filled with paint. Then she squatted over a canvas and pushed the eggs out. They exploded on impact, creating unpredictable patterns on the canvas. She repeated this process several times while onlookers gawked and photographers snapped pictures. At the end of the performance, she folded the canvas, applied pressure to it, and unfolded it to reveal a mirror image of the abstract work.
The Script System
Another performance in 2014 entailed Moiré wandering the art festival Art Basel naked. Words written in black covered her body, each word signifying a conventional piece of clothing. “Pants” written on her legs, “shirt” on her torso, “jacket” on her arms, and so on. Wearing nothing but words, she paraded the streets, catching the eyes of everyone who crossed her path.
Wearing a box made of mirrors, Moiré walked the streets in three different cities—Amsterdam, London, Düsseldorf. The mirror box contained a hole in front of her vagina or in front of her breasts. She approached strangers and allowed them to reach into the hole and touch her breasts or vagina. The performance caused a stir, which led to her arrest in London.
But What’s the Point?
Although the above are only three examples of her work, albeit the most notorious examples, Milo Moiré has carved a niche as a nudist performance artist who employs psychological principles while taking to the streets in lieu of the safety and insulation of galleries and museums. But what is the meaning of each individual performance? And does she succeed in conveying it through her performances?
PlopEgg is ostensibly a feminist statement, pointing to the vagina as the source of creation. But the minute she expels the egg, Moiré leaves creation to chance. Guiding the egg or the way the paint splatters is out of her control. This reading produces interesting questions about the nature of creation, motherhood, and even the chance encounters of social and cultural norms in developing people. You should note, however, that this is my reading, not Moiré’s. Instead, she sums up the performance by writing “To create art, I use the original source of femininity – my vagina.”
Her simple explanation shatters any meaningful interpretation and sets the observer’s focus solely on her. She removes any depth we might read into the performance by underscoring the act itself, thus nullifying any meaning.
What could have been a meaningful performance transforms into exhibitionism for the sake of garnering attention. The performance is little more than a means of coercing people to watch her. But when the performance is over, when the act is completed, we’re left only with the vacuous image of a naked woman expelling paint filled eggs from her vagina.
More than any other performance by Moiré, however, The Script System shows the most promise in her expressed desire to use psychological principles to create art.
“The performance The Script System Art Basel is inspired by the script theory of cognitive psychology,” she writes on her website. “Each of us knows these scripts (eg restaurant script), recurrent, stereotyped action sequences, after which we work every day. Especially early in the morning on the way to work, we work almost automatically, often without awareness of our environment. These everyday blindness I wanted to break through my performance. The Invisible (Invisible or become) make visible distribute such disorders as spores for a liberating thought.”
The inspiration isn’t the problem with this performance. The problem lies with the execution—again, centered around nudity and exhibitionism. As much credit as she deserves for brazenly baring it all in public, her nudity and choice of venue works against the message she’s attempting to convey. The script, in this case, the words written on her, become superfluous.
Her choice and act are certainly bold, but the performance itself could have worked in an environment more suited to contemplation, somewhere in which awareness is implicit. In public, she presents a spectacle, but the meaning shifts from her exploration of the script system to a commentary on female public nudity. It’s bold, it’s brave, it’s exhibitionism, but it’s muddled.
Of the three performances we’re examining, Mirror Box works. And it works because it’s brazen and public.
‘[T]his performance was [also] based on the Cologne attacks, and the discussion about respect toward women,” she said in an interview with Cosmopolitan. “I decided to go one step further and show a woman can decide when and if she wants to be touched. There’s always a picture that women are victims. For me, that’s not powerful. When you show that a woman has a voice when it comes to sexuality and has rights, I think it’s a better way to show that women are not only victims. [Mirror Box] is a better way to show that women are strong when they talk about sexuality, and not only victims.
‘Mirror Box’ is a societal reflection of human sexuality, that’s why I decided to make [the box mirrored]. Before a person came to me to interact, they had to confront all the people around us and the reflections visible in the mirror.”
By allowing people to touch her, and by reflecting the world around them, she succeeds in her stated goal. This is a performance that could only have worked with an unsuspecting public. The confines of an art gallery, for example, might have produced the opposite effect.
Some critics dismiss her work as vacuous while others point out that it’s closer to pornography than art—as if the two are mutually exclusive. It’s easy to dwell on her nudity and to question her artistic intentions. But perhaps her intentions are pretentious. If we examine her performances as abstractions, then we might see them for what they are: feminist commentaries on male-dominated institutions and cultures.
If she holds any importance as a performance artist, it’s in shining a light on how men and culture perceive women—especially when they choose to bare it all. It also works as a commentary on nudity in general. Why is the human body taboo in most cultures? Why do so many people consider the mere sight of the human body as somehow obscene? While Moiré doesn’t directly ask or answer these questions, she presents them implicitly. Her challenge to cultural norms in relation to nudity and her feminist expressions of control and power transform her exhibitionism into legitimately interesting statements.
“Show, don’t tell”—an adage with which every writer is familiar. Artists, too, employ this method when they refuse to explain a work. The work should stand on its own. Art, like a joke, isn’t good if you’re forced to explain it. It should be intuitive on some level, easy to grasp, even if the observer can’t articulate how they grasp it.
Moiré’s problem as a performance artist seems to manifest itself as a disparity between her explanations of her performances and her performances themselves. As an artist, her meaning lies in the performances themselves: she’s daring, unashamed, brave, and uncompromising. The spectacle is easy to dismiss—and many critics have dismissed her—but the choices she’s made, the acts she’s performed, deserve a nod, even if the execution sometimes feels contrived or even trite.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com